Since the new year, there have been more than a dozen incidents in the United States involving firearms discharging on school property, according to Everytown for Gun Safety. The organization identified 160 incidents between 2013 and 2015, with 84 of those occurring at K-12 schools.
So how safe are Middle Georgia public schools, and what policies are in place to prevent weapons from coming into classrooms? Some local districts are updating their safety measures following recent incidents where students brought guns to school.
A handful of gun incidents were reported in Middle Georgia districts during the 2016-17 school year. One student in Bibb County and five in Houston were disciplined after incidents involving handguns, according to a report from the Georgia Department of Education. Laurens County had four handgun incidents and three involving rifles. The report defines an incident as the possession, use or intent to use a weapon.
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The number of students disciplined for knife incidents — which include pocketknives and penknives — was much higher, with 26 in Bibb County; 28 in Houston; one in Wilkinson; four in Bleckley, Laurens and Dublin City; five in both Baldwin and Peach; six in Monroe; and seven in both Crawford and Jones.
Aaron Kupchik, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware whose research specializes in juvenile justice and school security, said it's important to put the threat that students face into proper perspective. In the 2013-14 school year, 12 homicides occurred at U.S. schools, according to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics.
"That's 12 too many certainly," he said. "When you start thinking about something that is literally less likely than our children being struck by lightening .... are we having a negative impact on schools and our children's experiences at schools because we are responding to something that is just so scary but so unlikely?"
Safe environments, clearly articulated rules and firm discipline are necessary at schools, but hard-core security methods can potentially have negatives consequences. It's a problem if measures make students feel worse about themselves or their schools, he said.
When schools become more like fortresses, students are more likely to be suspended for minor incidents, develop arrest records and be less likely to complete their education and be prepared for the job market.
"The more security practices in a school, the more we shift away from student social and academic needs," Kupchik said.
'See something, say something'
Some common security methods that schools use today are surveillance cameras, police officers on campus, controlled access to buildings and ID badges, but metal detectors are still rare, Kupchik said.
Only 4 percent of public schools in the United States performed random metal detector checks on students during the 2013-14 year, according to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics
After three weapons incidents this year, the Baldwin County district decided to add metal detectors at Oak Hill Middle and Baldwin High schools, Superintendent Noris Price said in an email. The Board of Education approved the $35,000 project Tuesday, and the devices started being used Wednesday morning.
An Oak Hill Middle student brought an unloaded gun to school Jan. 19. A gun inside the backpack of a third-grader at Lakeview Academy discharged inside a classroom Nov. 10. On Oct. 25, an unloaded pistol was found inside the backpack of a fifth-grader at Midway Hills Academy.
Law enforcement officials recommended that the district install detectors at the middle and high school levels, but not at the elementary school level since research showed that's not common practice, Price said.
Students at the middle and high schools were already required to carry clear/mesh bags, and the policy was extended to the elementary schools in November.
"We need parents to talk with their children about the dangers of bringing weapons into our schools and take the time to look through their belongings," Price said. "We want our parents to teach their children that 'if they see something, they should say something.'
The Dublin City district also has metal detectors at its middle school and high school, and Bleckley County uses them at its alternative school, district representatives said.
Leaders in Bibb County have reviewed safety procedures and should have new regulations ready in the next two weeks, Superintendent Curtis Jones said. The changes are in response to a Jan. 10 incident where a Taylor Elementary student brought a loaded handgun and 10 rounds of ammunition to school.
The county doesn't have a district-wide clear/mesh backpack policy, but about 10 schools list that kind of bag in their dress codes or supply lists. Some principals have said the clear/mesh bags can't be seen through well and aren't sturdy or practical, Jones said. Many of the prohibited items that students bring to school are in coats and pockets, not backpacks.
The district has decided the best approach is to do more random searches at the middle and high schools using metal detector wands and mobile full metal detectors, which the district already has and uses at some sporting events, Jones said.
"We think we need to have conversations with our students about collective safety, and we believe that will help us ... to continue to work on our relationships with students," Jones said. "(We want to) increase awareness and let it become and activity that we're in together, verses trying to catch somebody,"
Students will pair up and show what they brought to school, which will build trust and identify items they may have forgotten were on them, such as a pocketknife from a weekend Boy Scout outing. When students have faith and trust in their teachers and administrators, they are more likely to speak up when they see problems, Jones said.
"The most effect thing is decreasing student fear so they don't feel the need to bring weapons, and that's done by increasing student support," Kupchik said. "When students are respected, valued and listened to, then we have better outcomes, reduced student fear, reduced student behavior and so on."
Bleckley County requires clear/mesh backpacks at all its schools, and drug dogs do random searches at the schools and can smell gunpowder, alcohol and drugs, Superintendent Steve Smith said
Houston and Monroe County representatives said administrators can conduct backpack searches if situations call for them. Jones County students have to leave their backpacks in their lockers during the day. Only clear or mesh bags are allowed at the alternative school in Monroe County, and no backpacks are permitted at Dublin City's alternative school, according to district representatives.
Telegraph archives were used in this report.